The Baal Shem Tov was the founder and the visionary of chassidus, but the architect who built and spread the movement was Rabbi Dov Ber, the maggid of Mezeritch.
At his death in 1772, the maggid had attracted to his center of learning in Mezeritch some of the most brilliant minds, extraordinary personalities, and dynamic leaders of his day. There he molded them into inspired teachers and holy men. The maggid was able to take a man of outstanding potential and develop him into not only the “tzaddik” that the Baal Shem Tov had described, but also the personality that would become the key to the success of chassidus.
Although Reb Elimelech was in his 40s when the Baal Shem Tov passed away, he had no attachment to either the Master or the early spread of chassidus. It is therefore rather remarkable, considering his late connection, that Reb Elimelech became the paramount leader of the chassidic movement.
The popularity of the rise of chassidus did not go unnoticed by those who did not share the same allegiance. However, as long as the movement was limited to the commoner and isolated in a few pockets of Poland, no one perceived it as a threat. But this all changed by 1772.
Because of the maggid’s agents’ outreach work, the movement flourished and expanded beyond all assumed natural, geographic borders. It extended to Central Poland and Galicia, Lithuania and White Russia.
But the spreading of chassidus not only leapt passed geographic boundaries, it also flowed up from the commoners and impacted upon important scholars and leaders. Suddenly the non-chassidic mainstay of Polish, Lithuanian and White Russian Jewry felt threatened. Overnight, everything the chassidim did was suspect.
The hitherto reluctance to consult kabbalistic texts was disregarded by the chassidim, creating panic that the influence of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank lingered yet. There was also concern that the unprecedented emphasis upon prayer would shift time-honored priorities. It had previously been assumed that only a scholar familiar with all of the intricate minutiae of the law could be considered holy and close to the Almighty. Suddenly, chassidim had hoisted the unschooled commoner to an equal level of closeness to God by opening the gateway of prayer.
Prayer did not require erudition or diligence, only sincerity. The Baal Shem Tov told the story of an ignorant shepherd boy who had entered a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and was taken by the sincere devotion of the congregation. He too wished to offer up his voice in prayer but was unschooled in how to pray – even how to read from a prayer book. He therefore took out his recorder and began to offer the only profound expression that he knew how to articulate.
The worshippers in the synagogue were shocked, disgraced and appalled at the boorish behavior of this simpleton, who desecrated the Yom Tov with his simple flute. A shonda! They cried in unison and derision.
Only the Baal Shem Tov came to his defense, chastising those present by admonishing, “I could see that the prayers of this shul had almost made their way to the high Heavens, but they were lodged impenetrably at the gates. It was only this sincere and utterly pure blowing of the recorder that was able to ascend and transport all the prayers of this assembly into the portals of Heaven.”
Who did the chassidim think they were, supplanting the traditional “Torah study gateway” to Heaven with an artificial “prayer access way”? The fears of the opponents, or misnagdim, seemed to have been corroborated by the chassidim who adopted a non-meticulous approach to the proscribed times for prayer. If this wasn’t enough, they altered the nusach, or the liturgy, from Ashkenaz to Sephard.
For the very first time, Torah study, as it were, took a back seat to prayer that became – for the chassidim – the most dominant aspect of the day. In no time, chassidim had seriously tampered with the standard and accepted decorum of the synagogue. To wit, loud song and dance were no longer rare occurrences at specific times and on select holidays – but the daily norm. Meals consumed in a place of worship had previously been unheard of.